Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A letter to the Los Angeles Metro rail system

Dear Metro,

Can you give me my daughter's songs back? The songs that I didn't get to hear
because of you?

On November 27, I left work in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. on my way to see my daughter sing in a school concert. I had plenty of time. If the Red Line and Blue Line trains ran on schedule, I would be at the auditorium at about 6:15, well ahead of the 7 p.m. concert.

But then a train stalled at the Blue Line-Expo Line junction, leaving myself and many others stuck at Metro Center. Eventually, our train did head out
but didn't get far. The train ahead of us broke down between Grand and San Pedro stations. After taking a bus to Firestone station, I boarded a new train only to have that one develop problems and go out of service at Del Amo.

In the end, I arrived at the concert at 7:30 too late to see my daughter sing.

It's not like you were unaware that the Blue Line has been having problems. In April, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa noted a distressing number of "delays, service disruptions and accidents along the Blue Line." He said the matter "requires immediate attention."

That was almost eight months ago.  It's time to fix the problems. Now. Before someone else misses out on a irreplaceable moment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: "No Easy Day"

If you want to know what happened on the 2011 U.S. military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, "No Easy Day" is the book to read. It's not that this is a perfect book it's good, not great it's just that it's all we have

The military has offered only a handful of official details about the mission and even some of those have been shown to be doubtful. So until anyone else who was on the raid steps forward to tell his story, this is the only publicly available eyewitness account.

"No Easy Day" was written by former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette, using the pseudonym Mark Owen, who says he was a part of the team that assaulted the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan on May 1, 2011.

It's quite a story. The mission, according to Bissonnette, did not go nearly as smoothly as the government claimed. The helicopter carrying Bissonnette and other soldiers almost suffered a disastrous crash. It actually DID crash, but miraculously hit the ground in a way that no one was hurt.

A team that was supposed to land from a helicopter on the roof of Bin Laden's home aborted that route, forcing the soldiers into a time-consuming entrance through a series of barricaded doors. One group of soldiers blasted through one of the compound's gates only to find a brick wall behind it. One soldier told to blow up the disabled helicopter mistakenly set up explosives to destroy Bin Laden's house instead (he was stopped in time).

While the soldiers collected many computers and documents that could have information on Al Qaeda, they left a lot behind because they ran out of time. On their way out, Bissonnette said, the helicopter he was on came perilously close to running out of fuel.

For all the danger, only one person at the compound fought back, according to Bissonnette. Shortly after landing, Bissonnette and two other soldiers were trying to get Bin Laden courier Ahmed al-Kuwaiti out of a guesthouse in the compound. Al-Kuwaiti fired an AK-47 blindly out the window, narrowly missing one of the Seals. The Americans fired blindly back in, killing him, and somehow managing not to hit his wife and kids.

Next, as they entered the Bin Laden's three-story home, Bissonnette describes the soldiers seeing a man's head sticking out of one room.

"The point man snapped off a shot. The round struck the occupant, later confirmed to be Abrar al-Kuwaiti, and he disappeared into the room. Slowly moving down the hall, the team stopped at the door. Abrar al-Kuwaiti was wounded and struggling on the floor. Just as they opened fire again, his wife Bushra jumped in the way to shield him. The second burst of rounds killed both of them."

This paragraph describing U.S. soldiers killing a wounded man "struggling on the floor" disturbed me probably more than anything else in the book. There's no indication the man was armed. And accidentally killing his wife is just tragic.

Moving to the second floor of the compound, the Americans killed Bin Laden's son Khalid when he poked his head out into a stairway landing and was shot in the face.

As they reached the third floor, Bissonnette describes himself as being second in line, behind the point man.

"We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots.
"The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about ten feet in front of him."

That was Bin Laden, who apparently was hit in the head, and fell back into his bedroom. Bissonnette and another soldier found him.

"Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds." The soldiers found that he was not carrying a weapon.

It's jarring how different this account is from the original White House story, which said the Bin Laden was armed and "resisted." The White House later backed off from the claim he was armed, but still insisted that he had resisted capture.

The Bin Laden mission is not the only event described in the book, though you can hardly be blamed for skipping to that section. The first half of the book is filled with Bissonnette's swaggering tales of other Seal missions he took part in, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. These can be interesting, though they're largely told in a cold military tone where people are "targets," helicopters are "birds," and dead enemies are "re-engaged" to make sure they're dead.

It's fair to wonder whether Bissonnette's version of events in the Bin Laden raid is true. Did he exaggerate his role in the raid, or perhaps hide mistakes he may have made? Still, the reaction of Pentagon officials to the book speaks volumes they've accused him of divulging military secrets and are hunting for a way to punish him. Clearly, he hit close enough to the truth to strike a nerve.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book review: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

There's two main points I want to make about Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. First, it's an outstanding book. It's undoubtedly the best biography I've ever read, and is among the best books I've read of any kind.

Second, it's a LONG book. It's 571 pages, and it took me a good five weeks to read it (your mileage may vary). But it's long in a good way. It's filled with scores of interesting stories from Jobs' personal and professional lives, and packed with colorful detail. It's not a book to rush through; each section gives you something to stop and think about.

Isaacson interviewed over 100 people for the book, allowing him to faithfully describe countless moments throughout Jobs' life. We see the strange alchemy that allowed Jobs and Steve Wozniak two young men of virtually opposite personalities to create a computer company called Apple. It's amusing to read how Jobs avoided bathing as a young man, believing his vegetarian diet prevented body odor (it didn't). Later on, we see behind-the-scenes stories as Jobs butts heads with Michael Eisner, Bill Gates and other business heavyweights. One of the most amazing revelations of the book is that Jobs, who was adopted, unknowingly met his biological father, who owned a Silicon Valley restaurant.

The book works on various levels. On one hand, it's a history book, recounting key events at Apple, Next Computer and Pixar, and the development of such signature products as the iPod, iTunes, and iPhone. While I lived through these events, and often followed the news coverage, I discovered that I really didn't know the full stories until I read this book. I was surprised to discover how close Jobs and John Sculley were at first, before Sculley ousted Jobs from Apple in 1985. I was amused to learn that it was the success of Pixar's "Toy Story" that in many ways saved Jobs from oblivion and gave him newfound influence.

Also, the book is a fascinating look at business and management. Jobs brought a unique style to the workplace he was controlling, abrasive, demanding, and perfectionist. Unlike companies such as Google and Microsoft, he did not like trying a lot of things to see what worked. Rather, he preferred to focus intently on making small numbers of products great. He was both a long-term visionary, and incredible micromanager, fussing over the small details of products and driving many of the people who worked with him crazy in the process. "His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical," writes Isaacson

Third, the book is an intriguing look at a unique human being. He was abusive and bullying to many people, while still inspiring people to do great work. "He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will," says Isaacson. For all his faults in interpersonal relations, I found myself admiring his passion for accomplishing great things. It's disconcerting to be reading about Jobs' brilliance with making products that are easy to use, while in daily life we are all frustrated by all sorts of poorly designed technology.

As much as a I like this biography, no book is perfect and I have three small criticisms. First, the section in which Isaacson discusses Jobs' favorite music is completely unnecessary. Second, I wished that Isaacson included more dates in the book. Sometimes, I was trying to determine exactly when something happened, but it wasn't always clear. Finally, I wish there were more pictures of the other people besides Jobs and his family who are mentioned repeatedly in the book.